Transferable Skills Pay My Bills

I just came home from a vacation in Chicago (it’s magical, you should go, and a post about it is soon to come), and at the beginning of the last quarter of our 10 hour drive home, my bestie asked me what I was thinking about. I told her that I was contemplating the skills I have, and how I can use them to convince some company in Chicago to hire me, and only me.  The point of this story, and why I’m sharing it, (besides still sort of glowing from a fantastic trip), is that I was thinking about how most my skills are incredibly transferable, and how thankful I am for that.

I was in this frame of mind in preparation for a visit to University of Guelph today, where I participated in a panel for Alumni, in celebration of the Cooperative Education Career Services 30th anniversary.  I was asked to speak to a group of co-op students (some in their first year, some about to graduate), about my own experience in Co-op NINE years ago (*gasp*), and how it played a part in my entry into the ‘work world.’  One of my fellow panelists, also an alumni of the program, and a practiced speaker due to his participation in Toronto Debating Society, was thankfully also a practiced moderator.  He guided the conversation expertly, and suggested that we did less speaking AT the students, and more speaking with.  I couldn’t help but choose to tell them the story of my university experience though, as I wasn’t exactly a model student:

The first 3.5 years of my degree, and all of my co-op experience, was based out of University of Guelph Psychology. I did very well, and until the last 4 months of my second placement, I had every intention of graduating there. Unfortunately, I had a boss that I did NOT get along with, and I had a bit of a breakdown during the final months (during which my co-op coordinator was an incredible support) . I transferred to University of Toronto, where I had a hard time finishing what I started. Granted, I was working fairly close to full-time hours as a waitress, but this wasn’t really new for me; I’ve been working since I was 14.  The problem was, as my co-op evaluation stated, “she has learning capacity; learns very quickly if she interest very much [sic].”  Unfortunately, I wasn’t “interest very much” and so I failed a lot of courses.  It took me 7 years to do a 5 year degree.

Near to the end of this challenge, my Nana, who had been a second mother to me my whole life, suddenly suffered from an incredibly strong aneurysm, and died 4 days later. It broke my spirit. When I finally graduated, I had no interest in participating any further in the academic system, and no longer felt joy from working in the restaurant industry. I wanted to escape.

Luckily, a good friend of mine was part of a landscaping crew, and when I told him I wanted to do something physical, he said his crew was hiring. There I was, a landscape-contractor with a BASc, moving stones that were close to 500lbs, with more ease than it would have taken me to write a 500 word article analysis. For two years, I learned the Latin names of plants, the growing cycles of different kinds of trees, how to prune roses, Japanese maples, and lilac bushes.  I learned how to level patio stones, build frames for concrete pours, and dig trenches for electrical pipes. I learned that 2 lattes are not always enough to get you through the day, how to predict thunderstorms, when it’s appropriate to break for tea and Cornation Street, and how to spend a quarter of a day’s pay on lunch at Whole Foods.  I was being paid to play in dirt with people I cared about and respected, and I loved it.

Landscaping is a seasonal profession, and you get laid off for 2-5 months every year, depending on the weather.  In the second layoff, I was particularly hurting for cash, and my Mom’s friend’s mom needed help with her property.  I trekked up to Rexdale, where I chipped ice, shovelled snow, and cleared some brush from the back yard.  During one of my breaks, I discussed with the daughter about her position at the CBC. I told her how much I loved CBC Radio One, and that it was almost always on at my house. I sort of half-jokingly said “let me know if you hear of any positions,” to which she scoffed “you DO know of all the layoffs that just happened, right?”  I knew. But there’s no harm in telling people when you’re looking, right?!

Four days later, she called.  Just as baffled as I was to hear from her, she was to let me know that something had opened up that they needed to fill quickly! She wanted to know if I had any finance experience. I laughed, but then my mind started to reel, and I vaguely remembered being the treasurer for the stage company at my high school, and all the fundraising campaigns I had helped to organize when I was co-president of my music council. I had been responsible for thousands of dollars as a cashier and a programmer for various positions in the City of Toronto. Then I thought about my Co-op placements, and how quickly I had learned the statistical analysis software for the first, and the sensory analysis and scheduling software for the second. We arranged to have a more detailed phone call about the requirements for the position so I could prepare my resume better. They needed someone who was smart, understood the basics of finance, could stay organized and perform under pressure and, most importantly, was a ‘people person.’  !!!  No I didn’t have ‘finance’ experience, but I was suddenly certain that I was qualified.

My interview with my potential boss involved me trying to explain all of this, and also a lot of laughing about our past experiences.  She was hesitant that I’d be able to do it, but she was willing to take the risk on me for a month probation.  Within 2 weeks she arranged to cancel my ‘casual’ status, and sign me on for the full 7 month contract.

It was the skills and extra-curricular knowledge I gained during elementary school that I refined, adapted and improved during high-school, and then re-imagined and re-marketed into career and job-oriented ‘experience’ that got me the interviews for my potential co-op placements.  These skills continue to transform daily, and my flexibility and versatility has kept me employed during a rather hairy time at the mother corp.  I’m still not sure what I’m going to ‘do when I grow up,’ but participating in the panel helped me to re-awaken an awareness of the ways I’ve developed professionally in the last 15 years of employment.

I hope that if you’re reading this, and have any sway over any young people, you will encourage them to enroll in some sort of hands-on cooperative, or internship experience. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities that cooperative education provided for me at the beginning of my ‘career path’.

And, of course, I’m also thankful for the chance to go back to my old campus for a serious walk down memory lane:

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